Systems Thinking & Adaptive Learning: An Interview With Chris Soderquist

Chris Soderquist

A systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another – C. West Churchman

Chris Soderquist is the Carl Sagan of systems thinking. Sagan’s genius lay not just in his keen scientific mind, but also in his ability to convey the power, fun, and usefulness of science to people who might not otherwise get it – and to do so in a contagiously engaging and enthusiastic way.

In a similar vein, Soderquist’s genius is his ability to help people understand, appreciate, and apply the concepts of systems thinking to their most pressing problems and challenges, and to do so in a contagiously engaging, useful, and enthusiastic way. This is no small thing. In today’s turbulent, interconnected, polarized world, the rare ability to think systemically about complex problems is an increasingly vital competence.

The founder of Pontifex Consulting, Chris gets around. A small sample of the organizations that appreciate the value of his work and engage his services include Boeing, the CDC, The World Bank, The United Nations, The Georgia Health Policy Center, Pfizer, and Northwestern Mutual.

Having worked closely for years, I can say that Chris is not just a revered colleague; he’s a close friend. I took advantage of this and threw a few questions his way.

The term is familiar, so we think we understand what it means, but what do you mean by systems thinking?

The essence of systems THINKING is the capacity to identify the leverage you need to make the improvements you want. When you use systems THINKING you build collective confidence that the decisions you make, and actions you take, will produce high leverage outcomes.

I always use the term leverage to describe the systems THINKING value proposition. Leverage is the ability to fundamentally transform the performance of a system (an organization, team, project, community, or program) with minimal resources and effort, and minimal unintended consequences. This last bit is important because all too often our policies seem to have a positive impact but all we’ve really done is just shift the problem elsewhere else.

Systems THINKING, the way I teach and apply it, is a disciplined “thinking framework” that increases our ability to pool and integrate multiple – and often contrasting perspectives – in ways that generate powerful insight. What results is a useful understanding of “how things work,” or what I refer to as understanding the “physics” of the system. This is really important, for unless we have a clear understanding of the physics, we can’t identify leverage. It’s that simple!

By using the framework, we create a shared operational picture of the system so that far more productive decisions are made about how to move forward. In short, we get people on the same page about the nature of the challenge we’re facing and how to best address it.

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One final yet important point. I capitalize the word THINKING, because, to paraphrase a famous politician, “It’s about the THINKING, stupid.” Often people are attracted to the concept of systems thinking from an appreciation that all life is connected. While this is certainly true, focusing on trying to connect everything isn’t all that helpful when we’re trying to address difficult, messy, wicked, and adaptive problems. Our focus should be less on mapping the system completely and more on finding a way to make sense of it – a way that is “as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Systems THINKING is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We’re looking for leverage.

Why is systems thinking so important for adaptive learning?

Ron Heifetz points out that adaptive leadership is about getting people with different definitions of the problem engaged in a process of collaborative learning. When those people come from different disciplines or parts of the organization or society, they bring with them not only different perspectives, but different ways of speaking. The language I help my clients use is a visual and shared mapping language. This language requires precise application, and it brings a level of rigor into defining the elements of systems THINKING maps. This rigor increases clarity, reduces confusion, and ensures everyone shares the same understanding. Needless to say, this dramatically improves the quality of conversations, strategies, and decisions.

What commonly held, but erroneous assumptions, do people make about ST?

As I mentioned before, it’s not about “seeing the system” or “understanding how everything is connected to everything else.” These are both disturbingly common misconceptions about systems thinking and this is one of the reasons its supreme value is so little appreciated.

Another misconception, on the opposite end of the continuum is that you can’t be a systems thinker unless you build sophisticated system simulation models. Although simulation models are helpful when trying to understand extremely wicked, counterintuitive behaviors, they aren’t necessary for a range of systems THINKING uses. My colleagues and I, for example, have trained legislators how to simply use a set of questions to ensure more systemic thinking. They now ask for information in trend lines, so they can picture the dynamics of the issue they’re trying to address. Most of my clients learn how to draw behavior over time (trend) graphs, and even simple stock/flow maps. All of these can shed tremendous systemic insight on issues, and they don’t require building a complex simulation model.

Is it difficult to learn to think this way?

Yes it is. But in today’s world it’s even harder not to. Like most things worth doing, it takes time to learn, but you learn as you make sense of real problems, and the pay off in adaptive learning is huge. I cannot overstate how the ability to think in stocks and flows will fundamentally change how you see the world and how you navigate it. It makes many murky aspects of reality more easily understood, explained, and managed.

One thing that makes it difficult is something that is also a challenge in building conversational capacity: our ego. In the early days of learning systems THINKING, you will find that it is difficult – in the words of the Apple slogan – to think different. You will make mistakes, and therefore, you will be tempted to give up. But don’t. As I’ve already mentioned, the pay off is worth far more than the effort required.

You and I have worked together for a long time in a variety of places – from Boeing to the CDC to the Upper Valley Waldorf School to The Georgia Health Policy Center – so you’re the perfect person to ask this question: What is the relationship between systems THINKING and conversational capacity?

Both skill sets have an underlying goal of drawing out multiple perspectives in ways that allow us to share, improve, and integrate insight, and to apply this insight to address the issues we’re facing in our rapidly changing, complex world. Both approaches use the scientific method as the basis for doing this. The distinction is that systems Thinking brings with it a set of tools that are used to filter and transform the multiple perspectives to create an actionable view of the systems.

How does it work?

In working with clients, no matter how far we push the effort, I always get them to ask a focusing question for the effort: What’s the big dynamic we’re trying to understand? We then ask questions about how that trend has played out to get to this point in time? Where’s it going if left unaddressed? What’s the price we’ll pay if we don’t address it?

We then will map out the key structural drivers of that dynamic…the physics as I mentioned. In doing so, the group usually experiences a double loop shift in understanding. What once seemed to be the big issue suddenly is replaced by an issue not considered until now. “How did we overlook that?” they ask.

And if the group decides the additional effort is worth it, we’ll develop simulation models to increase the likelihood of understanding the physics…to see how decisions might play out into the future.

What advice do you have for people who want to learn more about systems thinking and how to acquire the skill?

There are few good books available that teach systems THINKING in what I consider to be both useful and learnable ways. Two of the best are Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows and Introduction to Systems Thinking by Barry Richmond – although both focus more on the simulation aspect than is useful in the early phases of learning. I’m currently working on a book that brings a refreshingly practical new take on systems thinking.

In order to learn the skills, you will need to apply them to a range of issues. As I tell my students, good poets don’t develop by writing just one epic poem. They become good poets by writing lots of little poems and sharing them with others for feedback. To develop your systems thinking skills, you’ll need to adopt a similar process. Apply the concepts to your work issues, community issues, personal and family issues.

Thanks Chris. Any questions you’d suggest readers consider and explore with their colleagues?

  • What’s the most troubling trend you’ve seen, that if it continues will create huge problems for the issues you care most about?
  • Where is that trend going?
  • Who else cares about this issue?
  • What has been done to try to address it? How successful have these efforts been?
  • Have they produced any unintended consequences (“bumps in the rug”)?
  • If you were to expand the boundaries of the issue beyond the normal focus, where might it also have important impacts? Causes?

For more information about Chris and his unique and powerful work, visit Pontifex Consulting’s website

Craig Weber

Known for his impactful work and his engaging delivery, Craig Weber is a sought after speaker, author, and consultant. His pioneering ideas about conversational capacity and adaptive learning are outlined in his bestselling book, Conversational Capacity: The Key To Building Successful Teams That Perform When The Pressure Is On (McGraw-Hill, 2013), his new book Influence in Action: How to Build Your Conversational Capacity, Do Meaningful Work, and Make a Powerful Difference (McGraw-Hill, 2019), and his popular Conversational Capacity eCourse.